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12 Rules for Writing GREAT Letters
by Pamela Wright, MA, MSW  

You write letters to request information, request action, provide information or describe an event, decline a request, and express appreciation.

When you write letters to the school, you want to express concerns and educate your reader about your childís problems.

You want your letters to create a good first impression. This article, 12 Rules for Writing Great Letters, will help you accomplish your objectives. 12 Rules is the companion article to The Art of Writing Letters.

1. Before you write a letter, you need answer these questions.

Why? Why am I writing? What am I trying to accomplish? 

What? What do I want? What are my goals? 

Get three blank sheets of paper. 

On the first sheet write "WHY? Why am I writing this letter?

On the second sheet write "WHAT? What are my goals in writing this letter?

On the third sheet write "Other Thoughts." 

Brainstorm. Write down your thoughts. Make lists.

Donít worry about writing in sentence or prioritizing. Your goal is to dump your thoughts from your brain onto these sheets of paper. Write down any additional ideas and thoughts on the third sheet of paper. You will write down your important thoughts in less than ten minutes. Do not allow yourself to obsess about details. You are interested in the Big Picture.
 


2. Your First Letter is Always a Draft

You write letters to:

(1) make a request

(2) clarify an event 

(3) decline a request 

(4) express appreciation

(5) create a paper trail 

Some letters have more than one purpose. Because letters you write to schools are so important, you need to do it right. 

If you anticipate resistance, you may begin by telling a story to get the reader's interest. Letís see how Kathrynís mother used the story telling method to begin an important letter to the school:

Iíd like to share a story about Kathryn with you. This year, when Kathryn turned four, we had a birthday party for her. She looked very grown-up in her pink dress. More than a dozen friends from pre-school and dance class came to her party. You can imagine what this was like. 

The children were laughing, singing, shouting, and creating a huge ruckus. We had a big chocolate birthday cake. The children were covered with icing. 

As we watched our daughter with her friends, we felt so proud of her. She was laughing, shouting, giggling with her friends. Only we knew how hard she worked for this day. 

Kathryn is hard of hearing. With hearing aids, she can hear at almost the same level as normal children. But if Kathryn had gone into the public school program with hearing impaired children, she wouldnít be able to have a birthday party with friends who laugh, and sing, and shout. 

In the public school program, the children donít learn how to sing or shout or speak. Their classroom is very quiet. If we had allowed her to attend the public school program, Kathryn would have learned to communicate through sign language and lip reading.

All of Kathrynís friends communicate by oral speech, not sign language. Kathryn would not be able to speak, listen, giggle with her friends.

Do you see how Kathrynís mother begins her letter "Iíd like to share a story with you . . ."

Gradually, the letter shifts as the mother makes her case. She leads the reader into agreeing that placing Kathryn in a class where children donít speak or listen is not appropriate. 

3. Allow for "cooling off" and revision time.

After you write the first draft, put your letter away for a few days. DO NOT SEND IT! 

Firing off a letter is one of the most common mistakes parents make. You must give "cooling off" and revision time. Later, parents say "But they said I had to respond right away . . ."

Ninety-nine percent of letters from the school system DO NOT
require you to respond immediately.

A "cooling-off period" allows you to look at your letter more objectively. If you send a letter without allowing for "cooling off" and revision time, youíll probably damage your credibility and your position. Sometimes, this damage is impossible to repair. 

4. You negotiate with the school for special education services.

As you are learning, you negotiate with the school for special education services. If you are negotiating with the school for special services or with a car dealer for a car, the principles are the same. You never begin negotiations by telling the other side what your "bottom line" is. 

In negotiations with schools, parents often make the mistake of being too open. Parents think they have to share everything with the school - immediately. They hope that by sharing everything, theyíll be rewarded with the help their child needs. This doesnít happen. 

You need to share the results of all evaluations and any other new information with the school, as soon as you receive it. However, you do not need to share your wish list or your bottom line. 

5. Never threaten. Never telegraph your punches!

Youíll remember that in the first chapter of this Tactics section, the parents wrote two letters. In their first letter, they made several threats. In their second letter, they made no threats, and told their story in a compelling way. If you make threats (i.e., "weíre going to call our lawyer"), you may experience temporary relief but youíll pay a high price later. 

Fear of the Unknown
As a negotiator, one of the most powerful forces you have on your side is the "Fear of the Unknown." When you threaten, you are telling the other side what you plan to do. If you tell them what you plan to do, you have told them how to protect themselves. At that moment, you lose your advantage - which is the wonderful, powerful Fear of the Unknown. Never telegraph your punches Ė you will destroy their power and effectiveness. 

You went to the doctor to get the results of your annual physical, including your lab work. As your doctor, I come in and tell you that:

The results of your blood work are very concerning. However, Iím behind schedule right now. We need to admit you to the hospital as soon as bed space is available - probably tomorrow or the next day. I donít have time to discuss the results with you right now. Iím behind schedule and have other patients waiting. Iíll be in to talk with you after you are admitted.
Fear. Panic. What happens now? Youíll imagine the worst case scenario.

Power of Information

Now, letís change the facts. You are at the doctorís office to get the results of your physical. As your doctor, I come in and tell you that:
Some of your blood work is not clear. Itís probably only ABC and if it is ABC, we have nothing to worry about. The worst case scenario is that you have XYZ. XZY is inconvenient but itís certainly not life threatening. Nine times out of ten, people have ABC. However, itís still important for us to rule out XYZ. 

Unfortunately, we canít run the additional tests here. We just arenít equipped to do it. So, we need to send you to the hospital where they have more sophisticated equipment. We can schedule your admission tomorrow or the next day. This is not so important that we have to do it today.

Can you feel the difference? 

When you know what youíre facing, is your fear as intense? No. 

If you donít fill in answers Ė if you donít telegraph your punches - then the fear of the unknown will force the other side to attribute more power to you. Because theyíll be in the "fear of the unknown," theyíll wonder what youíre going to do Ė and theyíll imagine a worst case scenario.

6. Make several (unpleasant but necessary) assumptions.

Assume that you will not be able to resolve your dispute. Assume that you wil have to request a special education due process hearing. Assume that you will not be able to testify at the hearing, or tell your side of the story.

These are important assumptions. These assumptions are the keys to successful letter writing. Assume things will get worse. Assume that success in securing an appropriate program and services for your child depends on how well you describe the events that caused you to write to the school.

The letters you write now may sit in your childís file for months or years. If things blow up later, these letters can be the most compelling evidence in your favor. Bobís letter at the beginning of this chapter shows how letters can work against you

7. Make your problem unique.

If you are writing a letter about a specific problem (i.e., a teacherís refusal to follow an IEP), present your situation as unique. You want the person who reads your letter to see your problem as different. You want them to think "Wow! Weíve never had this problem before!"

By presenting your problem as unique, youíre trying to avoid "We ALWAYS handle ABC situations this way. We ALWAYS have handled ABC situations this way. We ALWAYS will handle ABC situations this way. We canít make exceptions for you."

If you present your situation as unique, it wonít be listed in the Bureaucratís Big Book of Rules and Procedures. Remember: bureaucracies are inflexible and rule-bound. By presenting your situation as unique, you can sometimes get people in the system to see things differently. If they see things differently, they may be able to handle things differently.

8. You ARE writing letters to a Stranger who has the power to resolve the problem. (You are NOT writing letters to the school alone.)

When you write a letter to the school, you are really writing a "Letter to the Stranger." Why?

You have to assume that someone outside the school system will decide this issue. This person will have no personal knowledge about or interest in you and your child. This person doesn't know or care what "program" your child is enrolled in.

The person may be the school board attorney who advises the school district to settle the case. The person is more likely to be a hearing officer, Administrative law judge, or a Judge in state or federal court.

When you write letters, keep this Stranger in your mindís eye. Who is this Stranger? What does he look like? How does he think?

Visualize the Stranger as an older person who has worked hard all his life. He is conservative, fair, and moderately open minded. He knows that life is often difficult and unfair. He doesnít have patience with whiners or complainers. Heís far more sympathetic to people who have a plan to solve their problems. He dresses casually. When he sits down to read your letter, he may sip a cup of tea and light his pipe. 

The Stranger doesnít know you, your child, or your situation. Your letter gives you an opporunity to persuade the the Stranger to see the justice of your cause. When you describe the problem, you are also telling the Stranger what can be done to make things right.

Judges are Strangers. Most judges are not knowledgeable about special education issues or children with disabilities. When you write letters, you are also trying to educate and inform this decison-maker.

9. Write letters to the school as business letters.

When you write business letters, you state facts that support your position or request (your brain). You do not demand, threaten, ventilate anger or frustration (your emotions).

If you are writing an important letter to the school, you want it to be smooth, polished, and professional. Begin your letter chronologically and develop it chronologically. To see how this is done, go back and read the original "Letter to the Stranger" at the beginning of this section. The letter began like this:

Dear Mr. So and So:

We received a letter from you dated February 1, and were very perplexed by the content.

To put my letter into the proper context, let me go back to the beginning . . .

Do not attack or express overt anger. Resist the urge to take cheap shots. If you don't resist, they will come back to haunt you.

10. NEVER make judgments.

"What a jerk you were! You didn't have enough guts to be straight-up with us!"

NO!

NEVER be judgmental. You want the Stranger to be interested, not defensive or anxious. Provide factual information, then let the Stranger draw conclusions. You want the Stranger to conclude "What a jerk!" on his own.  

11. Write your letter chronologically.

When you tell a story, you tell the story chronologically. Your objective is to write a letter than is interesting, and easy to follow.

Remember, when you write a letter to the school, this is your chance to "present your case" and tell your story. The Stranger wonít know the background or history unless you provide this information. You can provide background information very naturally and easily by starting at the beginning and writing the letter chronologically.  

For example: "On DATE, our son entered your program because . . . 

You can move the clock earlier if this helps you tell the story. "We realized that our daughter had serious problems when she was unable to communicate by her third birthday." 

Where should you begin? Begin where you want. You know when the story "began." Continue to tell your story. "When she started school . . ." 

When you tell the tory, use your facts. Select your facts carefully and keep your opinions to a minimum. As you tell the story, you are planting seeds in the memories of all Strangers who will read your letter later.

There is another reason to write your letter chronologically. If you jump from issue to issue, the reader will get confused, then frustrated. Readers have negative reactions to people who write letters that are hard to follow. The Stranger is likely to get annoyed and angry with you if he canít figure out your point. If the Stranger gets frustrated, he will quit reading Ė and heíll blame you for this frustration. You donít want this to happen. 

12. Write letters that are clear and easy to understand.

Letters provide you with an opportunity to make your case and create a positive impression. The impression you make depends on how you present and express yourself. 

We donít like to think that our writing skills need improving. Unless you are a professional writer or editor, you will need to improve your writing skills in four areas: clarity, brevity, interest, and accuracy

ALWAYS read your letters aloud. This is a valuable tip from professional editors.

ALWAYS
have at least one outside person read your letters. Your "reader" should be someone who will tell you the truth, especially when you did not make things clear or you need to tone the letter down. 

Ask your "reader" to pretend that he or she is a Stranger. You want your reader to tell you if answered the three questions we listed at the beginning of this chapter:

  • Why are your writing?
  • What is the point you want to make?
  • What do you want?
The answers to these three questions must be clear. After your "Stranger" has read the draft of your letter, ask the person to answer these questions. If your reader cannot answer these questions, you havenít expressed yourself clearly.

Remember: your letter is to the Stranger, not to the special ed director or the principal. If you find yourself explaining your real point to the reader, stop. Write the explanation. Incorporate this into your letter. 

Letter Writing Tips

Make It Clear

Itís incredibly easy to get side-tracked when writing letters, especially if youíre feeling upset or emotional. Remember: You are writing to make a point, clarify an event, make a request, and create a paper trail. Refer back to the sheets of paper you used during the brainstorming stage. Have you answered these three questions?

  • Why are you writing?
  • What is the point you want to make?
  • What do you want?
Talk out loud. Avoid vague words, jargon, and long rambling sentences. Use short words when possible. If you naturally use long words to express yourself, try substituting short words that mean the same thing. Long rambling letters put people off because they are hard to read. You donít want this to happen. You want the reader, your Stranger, to enjoy reading your letter

Make It Short

Say what you have to say. Be succinct. Most people donít have the time to read long letters. If you repeat yourself, youíre wasting the readerís time and your letter will generate a negative response. Keep your message short and to the point. 

There is one exception to this rule. If you are writing a letter to request a due process hearing, then the letter needs to be a comprehensive "Letter to the Stranger." This letter should tell story, from the beginning, using visual imagery. 

Make It Alive

Speak directly to the reader. Use the same words and figures of speech you use in your day-to-day speech. Think about the Stranger as a real person. Visualize the Stranger and imagine yourself talking with him about your problems. This is the person you are writing to. Youíre not firing a letter off to the person who chaired the IEP meeting and didnít have the courage to tell you that the school had just suspended your child, as you see in the example below. 

Use words like "you," "we," "us," "our" to make your letter more personal. Everyone who reads the letter will feel that the message is directed at them. 

Make it RIGHT

Letters filled with errors are distracting. Readers get so distracted by misspelled words and poor grammar that they miss the point. If you send a letter thatís filled with mistakes, your real message is that you are sloppy and careless. If you prepare your letter on a computer, it will be easier to read. The Stranger will thank you for little touches like this. 

Your goal is to eliminate all spelling, grammatical, and formatting errors from your letters. The problem? We donít notice our own errors! The solution? Always have at least one other person proof-read your letters. Try to locate more than one proof-reader. Buy a book about "How to Write Business Letters."

Letter writing is an art. A well written letter is a pleasure to read. Itís also very hard work.

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About the Authors 

Pam Wright is a psychotherapist who has worked with children, adults, and families for more than 30 years. Her training and experience in clinical psychology and clinical social work give her a unique perspective on parent-child-school dynamics, problems, and solutions.

Pam is the co-author of several books includng Wrightslaw: Special Education Law, Wrightslaw: From Emotions to Advocacy, and Wrightslaw: No Child Left Behind. She has written dozens of articles about raising, educating, and advocating for children with disabilities. Pam designed the Wrightslaw web site and is the editor of The Special Ed Advocate newsletter.

Pete Wright represented Shannon Carter before the U. S. Supreme Court in Florence County School District Four v. Shannon Carter  where he received a unanimous decision in Shannonís favor.

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Revised: 02/21/07



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